A spooky 1829 Philadelphia prison now is open to those who dare to explore its remains.
By Joe Curreri
From a distance, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has the foreboding, medieval appearance of a haunted castle. With 30-foot-high stone walls and even taller towers, the penitentiary “” the first of its kind in the United States “” looks like and is a fortress. Its vaulted, sky-lit cells held many of America’s most notorious criminals, including bank robber Willie Sutton and gangster Al Capone.
Eastern State closed in 1971, 142 years after its first inmate was brought by horse and buggy. Although its walls and cells are crumbling, the walls do talk. It is now among the fastest-growing tourist attractions in Philadelphia, although it’s the very antithesis of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.
When the tour organizer of our senior citizens group suggested a visit to the penitentiary, I wondered why anyone would want to go to prison, or even see one. But this is no ordinary prison! Curiosity about the macabre takes over. With special tour names such as “Terror Behind the Walls” and “Fright Night,” it’s a hair-raising, haunting adventure.
“I’m not a big believer in ghosts myself, but it is a creepy place,” said facility administrator Sean Kelley. “It was open for 142 years as a prison. There’s a real sense of the people who lived and died here.”
As our group gathered at the entrance, the first thing our guide, Margaret Wentworth, asked was, “Has anyone been here before?” A resounding “NO” came back. One tourist added, “Thank God!”
“These walls are 12 feet thick at the base and 30 feet high, with castellated towers at the corners and a massive fortress-like entrance,” Ms. Wentworth continued. “They built it to create an image, for that time, [which was] very scary. It strikes fear in anyone who considered committing a crime.”
In the early 1800s, criminal punishment involved whips, pillories, and scaffolds. Pennsylvania Quakers, calling themselves “The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons,” advocated a new method “” solitary confinement “” which they believed would “break the criminal’s stubborn spirit” and make them penitent. Hence the word penitentiary.
Noted architect John Haviland designed an engineering marvel to accommodate this “Pennsylvania system.” In the farmland outside Philadelphia, he erected an intimidating medieval fortress to hold a wagon-wheel design of cellblocks. While the White House still had an outhouse, Mr. Haviland equipped the cells with running water and a private toilet, and installed central heating. Each 8-foot-by-10-foot cell had a round skylight (“the eye of God”) and a small exercise yard just outside it. After a prisoner entered, he or she was never seen by another prisoner “” they all wore masks and hoods to protect their identities when being escorted to or from a cell. But such movement was rare. Basically, prisoners stayed in their rooms, with meals delivered via a cart that rolled down a track built into the center aisle.
The prison opened in 1829, and construction around it was finally completed in 1836. It cost nearly $780,000, making it the most expensive building of its time in the United States. Eastern State was such a marvel then that its design was copied more than 300 times, mostly in Europe.
The first inmate to enter the facility was an 18-year-old farmer named Charles Williams. He had stolen a $20 watch and served two years.
As tourists flocked in the 1830s and 1840s to see this architectural wonder, a debate grew about the effectiveness and compassion of solitary confinement. Was it cruel to hold these men and women to live without visitors, without books or letters from home, without contact with the outside world?
Charles Dickens came to the United States in 1842 to see two sites: “the falls at Niagara and the Eastern State Penitentiary.” In his writings, he did not hide his distaste for the new prison. Finally, in 1913, long after Philadelphia had grown to surround the penitentiary on all sides, the system of solitary confinement at Eastern State was abandoned.
Eastern State’s most unusual inmate was admitted in 1924: Pep, the dog. Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced the black Labrador retriever to life in prison for murdering his wife’s cat. Pep served his sentence until the 1930s, when he died of natural causes.
In 1929 Eastern State’s most infamous inmate was admitted “” notorious gangster Al Capone. Reportedly, he got himself arrested for carrying a gun so he’d be put in prison after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago. After being given a year’s sentence, he lived luxuriously by bringing in personal touches such as fine artwork and a radio into his cell. The gangster continued to supervise his underground empire by using the warden’s telephone.
Like all prisons, Eastern State was the scene of numerous escape attempts. The most infamous involved an elaborate tunnel exit in April 1945 by flamboyant escape artist and bank robber Willie Sutton and others. They burst from the tunnel and outside the walls “” but Willie was nabbed by police right there. Others were captured later.
Riots, robberies, murders, and overall violence were exceptions, but not the rule, in this prison. Day-to-day problems were far more tame.
By the time Eastern State Penitentiary ceased prison operations in 1971, more than 80,000 inmates had served time there.
“When Eastern State closed, nature and vandals took over,” Ms. Wentworth said. Then she told us that we were about to see a place that was not in great shape. “Plaster is crumbling, timbers rotting, roofs falling in. Trees and flowers have sprouted in the exercise yards and pushed their way inside. But the debris is part of the charm. When our tours first began, visitors had to wear hard hats. But now, renovation makes it safer. The ceiling is stabilized. The hard hats are gone. It now has a museum quality. We and our visitors like the decay.”
She was right. The place “” now a historical monument “” is creepy enough, without having to worry that the ceiling is going to fall on you. In 2004, more than 100,000 visitors toured the facility.
Visitors inspect the cell blocks, visit art exhibits, see the museum, and “” during the month-long special Halloween tour “” even get to view special effects. Halloween or not, the place is enough to scare the bejabbers out of you. And visitors have fun taking pictures of each other behind bars.
The tour effectively feels out the underbelly of the 19th century. You can imagine Eastern State rising like a threat on a lonely hilltop outside the city, sending a shiver down every beggar’s spine.
Yet, the penitentiary is hauntingly beautiful, a world-class building steeped in history and swathed in peculiar charm. It is such an evocative setting that movies and music videos are now filmed there regularly.
“Inside, it’s the opposite of the looks outside,” Ms. Wentworth pointed out. “This also looks like a church, very cathedral-like, carrying out the idea of repentance and remorse.”
On the hour-long tour,visitors start at the main entrance “” its ceiling intentionally lowered, as were all doorways, to humble the occupants “” and view the cells with their narrow confines, each with a cruel slit of an overhead skylight to permit just the tiniest ray of hope.
Looking at the first small cell we came to made me cringe. Through the black, rusty, iron bars, the only things visible were a cot, a small table, a chair, and a toilet.
“Is this how they lived?” asked a horrified fellow in our group. Cell after cell revealed the grotesque conditions and terrible silence that is testament to the suffering endured once-upon-a-time in the name of justice. To those incarcerated here, the sound of silent halls must have been as horrible as the slam of the barred, iron door. (Hence the word “slammer.”)
“All these cells are as they were except one, which serves as a model. What rights did prisoners have?” the guide asked rhetorically. “Only four: food, clothing, medical care, and shelter. Everything else was to be earned.”
If the crumbling walls could talk, they would speak volumes of history. You get a sense of the building’s former grandeur and of how much went on. “Guards walked by the cells twice a day,” Ms. Wentworth said. “And they wore thick, wool socks to muffle their footsteps so inmates wouldn’t know they were coming.”
She said inmates were kept in solitary confinement so they might become penitent and find their inner light, which would then guide them out of moral darkness. Someone in our group agreed that the whole concept of punishment and later reform is fascinating.
But I got the sense of very violent spirits. I could almost hear inmates crying out, always from the dark side … Do I hear chains rattling? I thought.
Then we came upon the most famous cell of all “” Al Capone’s.
“Al Capone’s cell mesmerizes all our visitors,” Ms. Wentworth said. “You can see he received unusually special treatment. They put him in this area called ‘Park Avenue.’ He bought oil paintings for his walls, a large rambling rug, a plush lounge chair, floor and table lamps, and a cabinet radio. Capone’s door was rarely locked. He was even allowed to get away from his cell with extensive amenities. He was also very chummy with the warden.”
“I just can’t understand how Capone could get away with all that,” said a woman in our tour group.
Another cell block marked the place where robber Willie Sutton was confined. “Willie Sutton in his prime was a major celebrity, robbing banks and escaping prisons,” our guide said. “Willie and 11 inmates escaped through a tunnel that took 1½ years to dig. Alas, he was back in his cell two hours later.”
Visitors are then taken to the center of the radial-designed prison. Wardens and visitors alike could stand in the center and instantly view the corridors of all seven cellblocks. Today’s visitors also have the option of seeing death row, if they wish.
Despite the macabre atmosphere, the tour is fascinating. After the prison tour itself, visitors can check out a museum and exhibits that draw from Eastern State’s extensive collection of archival photos and artifacts. Exhibits explore such diverse topics as the daily lives of prisoners, architectural innovations of Eastern State, and modern trends in criminal justice. Art exhibits are a changing series addressing contemporary issues in corrections and the artists’ personal experiences with crime.
You go away immersed in the legacy of a prison based on humanity and good intentions. This is the Eastern State Penitentiary, once the most expensive building in the young United States, once the most famous prison in the world.
For A Temporary Visit …
Eastern State Penitentiary offers regular daytime audio tours from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. April through November, Wednesdays to Sundays. The audio tours are full of reminiscences from three former wardens and 25 guards and inmates, and is included in the admission price. Tours with a personal guide are available to groups of 15 or more.
In the evenings between September 23 and October 31, 2005, special “Terror Behind the Walls” tours are offered, making the prison an ultimate Halloween destination.
Regular daily admission is $9 for adults, $7 for students and seniors, and $4 for children age 7 to 12. Children under age 7 are not permitted to enter the building. The City of Philadelphia requires all visitors to sign a waiver acknowledging the poor condition of the site.
Motorhomers should take a towed car or public transportation to the facility. Parking is available in a lot next door, and metered parking is available in the area.
For more information, contact:
Eastern State Penitentiary
2124 Fairmount Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19130